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In the past 150 years (at least since Marx), the socialists have been very effectively destroying human freedom under humane and compassionate slogans, such as caring for man, ensuring social equality, and fostering social welfare. The environmentalists are doing the same under equally noble-minded slogans, expressing concern about nature more than about people (recall their radical motto “Earth First!”). In both cases, the slogans have been (and still are) just a smokescreen. In both cases, the movements have been (and are) completely about power . . . -- Vaclav Klaus, 2007

“Take no chances.” “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” “Better safe than sorry.” “Look before you leap.” These aphorisms are the common currency of the call for the precautionary principle.

The precautionary principle holds that precautionary action should be taken to avoid irreparable harm to the environment and to human health. Even though scientific proof is lacking that harm has been caused or is being caused, the practice must be prevented.

That is a commonly accepted definition. It appears explicitly in numerous agreements, laws, and treaties. For example, the European Union law requires that the precautionary principle be applied.

The argument is used by environmentalists to justify any kind of regulatory intervention. “All they need to implement such regulations—once the imminent catastrophe is sufficiently described—is simply moralizing, noble preaching about the future, and demonstrating their ‘concern’ about humankind . . . ‘If something can cause damage, let’s stop it,’ they say.” So summarized economist Vaclav Klaus, President of the Czech Republic.

On the basis of the precautionary principle, Rachel Carson attacked DDT and EPA Administrator Ruckelshaus banned it. The precautionary principle is advocated in commercialization of genetically modified foods, in the use of growth-hormones in cattle-raising, in health claims linked to BPA (Bisphenol-A), and in numerous other issues.

The precautionary principle implies willingness to take action even before there is scientific proof of the need for the action. The rationale is that a delay will be costly. Mercury in thermometers is an example.

It is used by environmentalists to justify a ban or any kind of regulation. If the advice of Al Gore is not taken, says Bjorn Lomborg, “[T]he people onshore in Bangladesh will drown not in 2105 but in 2100 if today’s catastrophic environmentalist scenarios come true!”

What public official wants to be accused of not caring for the health of his constituents, asks Aaron Wildavsky, a precautionary-principle sceptic. Thus Arthur Fleming, Secretary of health, Education, and Welfare, had to ban cranberries in the cranberry scare of 1959.

Precautionary principle, wrote Wildavsky around 1995, is a “marvelous piece of rhetoric.” It treats opponents as hostile or indifferent to the public’s health. It assumes there are no health detriments from the regulation. It suggests health with no loss whatever. It assumes what should be proved, that the health effects of the action are superior to the alternative.

Economist Vaclav Klaus added cost-benefit analysis to be “factored into the opportunity cost of not acting.” His point is illustrated by Lomborg: Some 20 people die of cancer in the U.S. because of pesticide residues in groceries. Banning the pesticides would save 20 lives a year. However, the ban would raise the price of fruits and vegetables, lowering their consumption by 10 to 15 percent, with the result that some 26,000 people would die a year. 20/26,000?

A second illustration comes from an estimate of the number of people in Great Britain who die from the heat, which could increase to 2,000 a year (by 2050); but the number who would not die from the cold is estimated at 20,000. 2,000/20,000?

A similar illustration comes from Indur Goklany, who pointed out that from 1979 to 2002, 8,589 people in the U.S. died from extreme heat, whereas 16,313 died from extreme cold. A slight increase in temperature would be helpful.

Those examples are offered by Vaclav Klaus, President of the Czech Republic, in his monograph Blue Planet in Green Shackles, What Is Endangered: Climate or Freedom? (2008). Waiting for further information before acting, is a valuable option which should be added into the calculation, he believes.

Wildavsky asks whether the health benefits from the regulation are greater than the health costs of the regulation. This information must be known. It must be demonstrated. Precautionary-principle advocates who argue that we should “take no chances” must offer empirical evidence, says Wildavsky in “Conclusion: Rejecting the Precautionary Principle,” appended to his book, But Is It True? A Citizen’s Guide to Environmental Health and Safety Issues (1995).

“And preponderant evidence is against the proposition that health would be improved or maintained by regulating miniscule amounts of chemicals or withdrawing huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the economy,” adds Wildavsky.

Wildavsky’s further objection is moral. He asserts that emphasizing a single value, to which all others must be subordinated, is “a sign of fanaticism.” What happened to other values? How much is a marginal gain in health worth compared to other values like freedom, justice, and excellence? He adds:

My main objection, however, is not that small gains in health are coming at the expense of other valued qualities. My great objection is that overall there are no health benefits from regulation of small, intermittent exposures to chemicals.

By Natalie Sirkin


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